Category Archives: Richard Wiseman

Richard Wiseman’s Psychology of Deception


Richard Wiseman’s Psychology of Deception


by Rupert Sheldrake


Excerpted from Appendix 3 of:
Dogs That Know When Their Owners Are Coming Home
by Rupert Sheldrake, Broadway Books, 2011.

Richard Wiseman started his career as a conjurer, and like Randi is a skilled illusionist. His has a Ph.D. in psychology and is an expert on the psychology of deception. He is a Fellow of CSICOP/CSI, one of Britain’s best-known media skeptics, and is currently Professor of the Public Understanding of Psychology at the University of Hertfordshire.

When my experiments with Jaytee were first publicized in Britain in 1994, journalists sought out a skeptic to comment on them, and Richard Wiseman was an obvious choice. He put forward a number of points that I had already taken into account, suggesting that Jaytee was responding to routines, or car sounds or subtle cues. But rather than argue academically, I suggested that he carry out some experiments with Jaytee himself, and arranged for him to do so. I had already been doing videotaped experiments with this dog for months, and I lent him my videocamera. Pam Smart, Jaytee’s owner, and her family kindly agreed to help him. 

With the help of his assistant, Matthew Smith, he did four experiments with Jaytee, two in June and two in December 1995, and in all of them Jaytee went to the window to wait for Pam when she was indeed on the way home.

As in my own experiments, he sometimes went to the window at other times, for example to bark at passing cats, but he was at the window far more when Pam was on her way home than when she was not. In the three experiments Wiseman did in Pam’s parents’ flat, Jaytee was at the window an average of 4 percent of the time during the main period of Pam’s absence, and 78 percent of the time when she was on the way home. This difference was statistically significant. When Wiseman’s data were plotted on graphs, they showed essentially the same pattern as my own (Figure 2.5). In other words Wiseman replicated my own results.

I was astonished to hear that in the summer of 1996 Wiseman went to a series of conferences, including the World Skeptics Congress, announcing that he had refuted the “psychic pet” phenomenon. He said Jaytee had failed his tests because he had gone to the window before Pam set off to come home. 

In September 1996, I met Wiseman and pointed out that his data showed the same pattern as my own, and that far from refuting the effect I had observed, his results confirmed it. I gave him copies of graphs showing may own data and the data from the experiments that he and Smith conducted with Jaytee. But he ignored these facts.

Wiseman reiterated his negative conclusions in a paper in the British Journal of Psychology, coauthored with Smith and Julie Milton, in August, 1998. This paper was announced in a press release entitled “Mystic dog fails to give scientists a lead,” together with a quote from Wiseman: “A lot of people think their pet might have psychic abilities but when we put it to the test, what’s going on is normal not paranormal.” There was an avalanche of skeptical publicity, including newspaper reports with headlines like “Pets have no sixth sense, say scientists” (The Independent, August 21, 1998) and “Psychic pets are exposed as a myth” (The Daily Telegraph, Aug 22, 1998). Smith was quoted as saying, 

”We tried the best we could to capture this ability and we didn’t find any evidence to support it.” The wire services reported the story worldwide. Skepticism appeared to have triumphed.

Wiseman continued to appear on TV shows and in public lectures claiming he had refuted Jaytee’s abilities. Unfortunately, his presentations were deliberately misleading. He made no mention of the fact that in his own tests, Jaytee waited by the window far more when Pam was on her way home than when she was not, nor did he refer to my own experiments. He gave the impression that my evidence is based on one experiment filmed by a TV company, rather than on more than two hundred tests, and he implied that he has done the only rigorous scientific tests of this dog’s abilities.

Instead of plotting their data on graphs and looking at the overall pattern, Wiseman, Smith and Milton used a criterion of their own invention to judge Jaytee’s “success” or “failure”. They did not discuss this criterion with me, although I had been studying Jaytee’s behaviour in detail for more than a year before I invited them to do their own tests, but instead based it on remarks about Jaytee’s behaviour made by commentators on two British television programmes, who said that Jaytee went to the window every time that his owner was coming home. In fact, he did so on 86 per cent of the occasions. And one of these programmes said that Jaytee went to the window “when his owner Pam Smart starts her journey home.” In fact Jaytee often went to the window a few minutes before Pam started her journey, while she was preparing to set off. Based on these TV commentaries, Wiseman et al. took Jaytee’s “signal” to be the dog’s first visit to the window for no apparent external reason. They later changed this criterion to a visit that lasted more than two minutes.

Wiseman and Smith found that Jaytee sometimes went to the window at Pam’s parents’ flat for no obvious reason before Pam set off at the randomly-selected time. Anytime this happened, they classified the test as a failure, despite the fact that he waited at the window for 78 percent of the time when Pam was on the way home, compared with only 4 percent when she was not. They simply ignored the dog’s behaviour after the “signal” had been given. 

In addition to these experiments at Pam’s parents’ flat, they carried out a test at the house of Pam’s sister, where Jaytee had to balance on the back of a sofa to look out of the window. The first time he visited the window for no apparent reason coincided exactly with Pam setting off, and her sister remarked at the time, on camera, that this was how Jaytee behaved when Pam was coming home. But Jaytee did not stay there for long because he was sick; he left the window and vomited. Because he did not meet the two-minute criterion, this experiment was deemed a failure.

On another British television programme called “Secrets of the Psychics”, Wiseman said of Jaytee, “We filmed him continuously over a three hour period and at one point we had the owner randomly think about returning home from a remote location and yes, indeed, Jaytee was at the window at that point. What our videotape showed, though, was that Jaytee was visiting the window about once every 10 minutes and so under those conditions it is not surprising he was there when his owner was thinking of returning home.” To support this statement, a series of video clips showed Jaytee going to the window over and over again, eight times in all. The times of these visits to the window can be read from the timecode. They were taken from the experiment on shown in Figure 2.5 (June 12). Two of these visits were the same clip shown twice, and three took place while Pam was actually on the way home, although they were misleadingly portrayed as random events unrelated to her return. Looking at the graph of the data from this test, it is obvious that Jaytee spent by far the most time at the window when Pam was on the way home: he was there 82 percent of the time. In the previous periods his visits were much shorter, if he visited the window at all.

Wiseman, Smith and Milton said that they were “appalled” by the way some of the newspaper reports portrayed Pam Smart. But although they helped initiate this media coverage, they considered themselves blameless: “We are not responsible for the way in which the media reported our paper and believe that these issues are best raised with the journalists involved.” They also excused themselves for failing to mention my own research with Jaytee on the grounds that it had not yet been published when they submitted their paper to the British Journal of Psychology. They therefore created the appearance that they were the only people to have done proper scientific experiments with a return-anticipating dog. Also by publishing their paper before I could publish my own – I spent two years doing experiments, while they spent four days – they claimed priority in the scientific literature for this kind of research. To put it mildly, these were scientific bad manners.

Wiseman still tells the media, “I’ve found plenty of evidence of unscientific approaches to data, but have never come across a paranormal experiment that can be replicated.” In an comprehensive analysis of Wiseman’s approach, Christopher Carter has shown how he adopts a “heads I win, tails you lose” approach to psychic phenomena, viewing null results as evidence against psi while attempting to ensure that positive results do not count as evidence for it. Carter has documented a series of examples, including the Jaytee case, where Wiseman uses “tricks to ensure he gets the results he wants to present.” He is, after all, an illusionist and an expert in the psychology of deception.

Excerpted From:

Dogs That Know When Their Owners Are Coming Home
Rupert Sheldrake. Broadway Books; Fully Updated and Revised:
April 26, 2011.

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Richard Wiseman’s “Experimenter Effect” Examined


Richard Wiseman’s “Experimenter Effect” Examined


The O’Neill – Wiseman Controversy

by Mick O’Neill


From an article submitted to Paranormal Review.

Frequently, when someone claims a positive psi result, Dr. Richard Wiseman appears in the media giving reasons why it probably isn’t psi, often quoting a similar experiment that he has done which has failed. To his credit, he has been exploring his consistent failure with Marilyn Schlitz (1998) and they have discovered that whether in his lab or hers just by having Richard involved as experimenter the experiment will fail. However, I have never yet heard Richard mention this when telling the media of yet another of his failed experiments. I also know him as an accomplished stage magician and member of the Magic Circle who performed at the SPR Christmas meeting in 1998. The use of magicians in psychical research is important. They are aware of all the tricks that can be used to manipulate people and can thus help separate true results from false ones. However, it seems dubious that they should be performing experiments themselves. With their powers of manipulation they could easily, even subconsciously, be getting the results they want. Perhaps this is the origin of the Wiseman experimenter effect.

The first I heard of “The World’s Largest Esp Experiment Ever” was on the evening of the sixth of December 2000 when I heard Richard on BBC Radio 4’s Midweek describing how thousands of people were expected to take part in a public experiment to test telepathy the next day. Richard’s press release (13/11/2000) showed he was replicating the well-known Ganzfeld telepathy experiment but using many ‘senders’ based on a 1971 experiment with 2000 senders at 6 ‘Grateful Dead’ concerts, described by Ullman, Krippner and Vaughan (1973).

Richard was to attempt 10 trials and he accurately pointed out, 6 direct hits were required for significance (p = 0.0197, binomial p:0.25). The Ganzfeld with single senders has an expected hit rate of 1 in 4 or 0.25 and an observed hit rate of about 0.30 but Ullman et al. concluded of many senders that “Certainly no particularly striking improvement in accuracy was noted when compared with what ordinarily occurs when single agents are used”. So, based on the two past experiments that he was trying to replicate, psi can be expected to manifest with a hit rate of only 0.30, not the 0.60 required for 6 hits. Indeed, the probability of getting 6 hits is still significantly unlikely using an expected of 0.30 (p = 0.047, binomial p:0.30). In other words, here is an experiment which should fail whether psi exists or not.

Despite Richard being a Council member he apparently hadn’t informed the SPR of the experiment, thereby foregoing the potential involvement of interested volunteers and independent expert invigilators. Suspicious that someone didn’t want psychic investigators to attend and intrigued by the Wiseman experimenter effect, I organised a tape recorder and camera and managed to arrive just as the first trial was starting barely 12 hours later.

The first point to make was that there was no-one there. Well, Richard and his technicians and venue staff were and perhaps 5 or 10 members of the press but absolutely no-one else. This was more like a press conference than an experiment to test many senders.

The experiment was apparently well-financed and technologically sophisticated. It involved the co-experimenter Matthew Smith putting a ‘receiver’ through the standard Ganzfeld procedure: relaxation while white noise was played through headphones and a red light was shone at halved ping pong balls placed over their open eyes. The receivers had been chosen, not for any psychic abilities but for their artistic and extravert temperaments and were in an acoustically isolated room on the 19th floor of a tower block. Meanwhile any senders started looking at a slide randomly selected from 4 in the nearby “Museum Of The Unknown”. A one way audio link transmitted whatever the receiver said they visualised back to the senders and was noted by Matthew. At the end of about 10 minutes the session finished and Matthew read back to them what they had said. They were then shown the correct image mixed with 3 decoys and had to sort them into order of correspondence with what they had visualised. During the course of the day 10 trials, each with a different receiver, were attempted; 8 inside the museum and 2 with many more senders in an adjacent park. The first trial was a ‘direct miss’: the correct image being placed in 4th place. The next, 11 o’clock, trial may have had a couple more members of ‘the public’ and the receiver’s visualisations seemed much closer to the image, placing it 2nd. I then heard that an extra trial had been done live on GMTV at 8:30 a.m. that morning and been a ‘direct hit’: first place. For me, this was exciting because I knew this was right in the middle of the local sidereal time window which James Spottiswoode (1997) has found enhances the Ganzfeld effect size dramatically. I am finding a similar enhancement in my current Lottery project.

During the day Richard was relaxed, entertaining and seemed fair. For example, he made a point of not mentioning the results of the earlier failed trials to the senders before each trial.

Of the eight small scale indoor trials there was 1 direct hit, 2 in second place and 5 direct misses: noticeably below chance. However, the next two outside trials attracted more senders: 50 to 100. The first outside target was an image of the famous sculpture of George Washington cut into Mount Rushmore. Although the early feedback from the receiver was not particularly appropriate, towards the end he came up with “America, like a 3D virtual image/map….. old man..”. The receiver then selected the correct image easily. The crowd was very encouraged and were cheering enthusiastically.

At this stage, experimental protocols seemed to be forgotten. Chronologically my criticisms are:

1.   For each trial the image to project had been decided by volunteers selecting balls from gold and silver magician’s bags. When this was completed for this trial Richard said “..which translates on mine to the animal..”. In other words, Richard already knew which image would have been used as a result of which number. The protocol of Ganzfeld experiments has been laid down by Hyman and Honorton (1986) in a rare spirit of agreement between sceptics and psi proponents. This protocol makes it clear that two people must be used to prevent the experimenter having any idea which image will result from the randomisation. When it is being done by a magician using magician’s paraphernalia, the requirement seems much more crucial. One reason for this part of the protocol is that otherwise it would be possible for an unconsciously biased experimenter to make sure that the chosen target image was one which had more (or potentially less) chance of being selected.

2.   On selection of an Elephant image. Richard immediately said “Earlier today we had a moose and it didn’t go at all well”. Not only did this break the admirable protocol of not giving the results of previous trials to the senders but it clearly undermined the task at hand.

At this stage Richard announced that he had just been told that the next trial was to be shown live on Channel 4 news.

3.   Richard then informed the senders about the 1971 experiment in which the receivers were professional psychics, saying “one psychic was not bad and the other was absolutely dreadful”. In this experiment, one psychic was the well-known Malcolm Bessent(1944-1997). The senders had been shown slides saying “Try using your ESP to ‘send’ this picture to Malcolm Bessent. He will try to dream about the picture. Try to ‘send’ it to him. Malcolm Bessent is now at the Maimonides Dream Laboratory in Brooklyn.” (45 miles away). The second psychic: Felicia Parise was a control psychic and wasn’t mentioned to the senders.

Of the 6 trials Felicia got 1 direct hit: exactly chance, as you might expect from a control psychic whom the audience knew nothing about. Malcolm got 4 direct hits.

Crucially, Richard omitted to mention that Felicia was a control. As a scientist who has spent much of the last 20 years developing control groups it upsets me to see a colleague diminishing an experiment by presenting a control group as if it were the main experimental group. I cannot think of a worse misrepresentation.

4.   Even ignoring the unforgivable error of failing to mention the control, no scientist could fairly summarise a psi experiment where one subject was four times chance and the other exactly chance, using the terms “not bad” and “absolutely dreadful” respectively, unless they come from a world where psi is the accepted norm.

However, only three hours earlier at the 4 p.m. trial, Richard had said of exactly the same psychics one “was fairly successful, one wasn’t”

Playing down the significance of the only previous mass experiment in such a blatantly unfair and totally inconsistent way was bound to affect the confidence of the senders. Many in the crowd must presumably have arrived for the outdoor trials initially sceptical that it would work. However, having just witnessed the dramatic success with the George Washington image, they could have started to believe it might just be possible. Since then, Richard had improperly or inconsistently informed them of 3 previous results as “didn’t go at all well”, “not bad” and “absolutely dreadful”. This was certain to influence many of the senders and Richard had to be aware of this, because in the short write up of the 1971 experiment Ullman et al. wrote “For those who find it an exciting and novel challenge, ESP may actually be enhanced; for those who feel they are attempting something impossible and do not expect success, there may be no results.”

5.   The main conclusion of the 1971 study was that the use of Malcolm Bessent’s name had established a rapport between him and the senders. Ullman et al. wrote “… it is easier for one subject to make telepathic contact if there is rapport.”. During the day Richard had told us the names of the receivers and they appear on all of the 5 previous trials I taped. However in the crucial final trial the senders were never made aware of the name of the receiver.

The result of the final trial was a miss with the elephant being placed third in the rank ordering.

It is my opinion that the most logical reason for so many irregularities, misrepresentations, and inconsistencies occurring at this one time is that after the first large scale trial had succeeded dramatically, Richard, perhaps unconsciously, feared that the final trial might succeed, perhaps even live on national television. Clearly this would have compromised his consistent message that psi probably doesn’t exist and therefore presumably tarnished his growing media profile as a debunker of psi.

I trust this analysis helps show the type of distinct but subtle influences which produce the Wiseman experimenter effect. In the interest of balanced scientific endeavour it seems important that Richard continue his ‘experimenter effect’ work in order to decide whether it is indeed true that any experiment he is involved in will fail. In the interim, it seems unfair to present others’ experiments as failures, sometimes in a blaze of publicity, when the most likely explanation is not that the experiment does not manifest psi, rather that Richard as the experimenter has subconsciously manipulated the experiment to fail.

Acknowledgements: Thanks are due to Pat Harris and several anonymous reviewers whose comments helped meet a tight deadline and to Richard Wiseman himself who clarified some other concerns.


Hyman, R. & Honorton, C. (1986) A joint communiqué: the Psi Ganzfeld Controversy. Journal Of Parapsychology, 50, 356.

Spottiswoode, S. J. P., (1997) Apparent Association Between Effect Size in Free Response Anomalous Cognition Experiments and Local Sidereal Time. Journal of Scientific Exploration, 2, 109-122.

Ullman, M., Krippner S. & Vaughan A. (1973). Dream Telepathy. Turnstone, 174-177. (1983 2nd edition 134-137)

Wiseman, R. & Schlitz, M. (1998) Experimenter effects and the Remote Detection of Staring Journal Of Parapsychology, 61, 197-208.

Mick O’Neill:

Go to “A Reply to O’Neill” by Richard Wiseman below:

Richard Wiseman and Ganzfeld Telepathy Research


Richard Wiseman and Ganzfeld Telepathy Research


The Wiseman & Milton Controversy

by the Editors


On Richard Wiseman’s “obvious self-interest”.

Since the 1970s one of the most popular kinds of telepathy experiment among parapsychologists has been the ganzfeld procedure.

The German word “ganzfeld” means “whole field”. In these experiments subjects are placed in conditions of mild sensory deprivation, sitting in a comfortable reclining chair, listening to white noise played through headphones, and wearing translucent hemispheres over the eyes – halved ping-pong balls – while red light shines on the face. Meanwhile, a “sender” in another room looks at photos or video clips, and the subject speaks about any feelings or images that come to mind. At the end of the session the subject is shown four different stimuli, only one of which was shown to the “sender”, and ranks them. There is a 1 in 4 or 25% chance of scoring a hit by chance, by ranking the actual image first.

In many such trials subjects have scored very significantly above chance levels, and several meta-analyses have shown a very significant overall effect. In 1999, Richard Wiseman and his colleague Julie Milton published a meta-analysis in Psychological Bulletin that they claimed shown no overall significant effect, and publicized their findings widely in the media, claiming that ESP did not exist.

This skeptical claim generated a great deal of controversy in technical scientific journals, because most of their colleagues considered their analysis to be biased and seriously flawed, both in the methods they had used, and in the way they had selected the data. In particular, they had chosen to omit some recent and highly successful experiments. Milton (1999) later admitted that when these data were included in the analysis, the results were indeed positive and statistically significant.

Nancy L. Zingrone, Ph.D., then the President of the Parapsychological Association, the professional society to which Wiseman and Milton criticized Wiseman for “obvious self-interest”. In a letter to the Journal of Parapsychology, he objected that she had not supported her criticism with appropriate references, and she replied as follows (in The Journal of Parapsychology (2002), 66 (2), 212-216):

The Milton and Wiseman meta-analysis … sparked controversy to some extent because it seems to have been conducted and published more from self-interest than from a sincere wish to test the hypothesis at hand…. In response to his letter, I have returned to my database and discovered that I did not, in fact, cite all the criticism and response available. Therefore, taking his comment into account and keeping to my intention of not allowing heavily criticized work to be cited without qualification, I would like to amend my reference citation to the following:

(See Milton & Wiseman, 1999. For criticism see Bem, Palmer & Broughton, 2001; Errata, 2001; Schmeidler & Edge, 1999, pp. 335-360; Storm, 2000 & Ertel, 2001; and Storm & Thalbourne, 2000, pp. 298-299. For response to criticism see Milton, 1999; Milton & Wiseman, 2001; and Schmeidler & Edge 1999, pp 335-360).

I would also like to qualify the use of the word “obvious” in reference to the self-interest that, in my opinion, seems to underlie the Milton and Wiseman meta-analysis. What is “obvious” to me may only be apparent to other readers of the published literature. The context in which I have read the published record of this controversy may be different from other readers because: I had read a draft of the paper before it was published in Psychological Bulletin; I was present at the 1997 PA Convention where a previous version of the Psychological Bulletin paper was presented; I have had other critical contact with other writings of Milton and Wiseman in normal scientific interactions (such as participating in the peer review process); and I have analysed other writings of Dr. Wiseman for my thesis research which focuses on criticism and response. Finally, I have also been present on email chat lists in which Dr. Wiseman’s work in general and the Milton and Wiseman meta-analysis in particular have been discussed. My opinion arises from that context and as such what is obvious to me may only be apparent or a faint suspicion to others. Of course, there must also be those who would disagree with my position, having formed an equally strong but opposite opinion.

There are also, however, some specific characteristics of the Milton and Wiseman meta-analysis and the way in which they present and defend it (Milton, 1999; Milton & Wiseman, 1999; Milton & Wiseman 2001) that signal to me rather than asking the underlying scientific question – is the ganzfeld still a useful method of parapsychological research?-Milton and Wiseman were gathering evidence to support an a priori commitment to the notion that all positive psi results are spurious and all methods which seem to show the presence of psi are flawed. I realize I am also making a very strong claim. I am aware that I could be in error. But I provide here some published evidence to support my points.

The first is the following. Milton and Wiseman seemed to have missed an obvious opportunity for peer review in their rush to publish their 1999 Psychological Bulletin paper “Does Psi Exist? Lack of Replication of an Anomalous Process of Information Transfer.” It is usual in the parapsychological community for people to “try out” papers that will eventually be published by presenting them at the annual Parapsychological Association conventions. An extra layer of pre-publication protection from errors of fact or method is provided to authors first by the convention refereeing process and, second, by the experience of presenting at the convention and fielding questions and criticisms both on the convention floor and in informal encounters. It seemed to me to be odd at the time that Milton and Wiseman chose to submit their convention version to Psychological Bulletin after it had been accepted for the Proceedings of Presented Papers but before the actual presentation at the convention. That is, they submitted “Does Psi Exist?” to the Psychological Bulletin slightly more than six weeks prior to the PA Convention. The submission was received by Psychological Bulletin on June 23rd, 1997 (Milton & Wiseman, 1999, p.391), and the convention took place from August 7th – 10th, 1997.

One wonders why Milton and Wiseman made the decision to forego the opportunity for more detailed critique which could reasonably have been expected to be available at the convention just over six weeks later. It seems to me that it would have been in the best interest of science to wait to revise the paper until after they had heard and considered the criticisms raised by their colleagues on the convention floor. Their decision seems especially unfortunately given the number of errors in their original work that they have since been identified in print. These errors have included statistical problems in the original meta-analysis (Schmeidler & Edge, 1999, pp. 340-349; Storm, 2000, pp. 411-413; Storm & Ertel, 2001, pp 425, 427, 429-430; Bem, Palmer & Broughton, 2001, pp. 208-209); procedural problems in coding, blocking, and inclusion criteria (Schmeidler & Edge, 1999, pp. 336-339, 349-360); and a miscalculation in the original study table (Milton & Wiseman, 1999, p. 388) that was used in a later meta-analysis (Bem, Palmer & Broughton, 2001, p. 210) and then corrected by the editors of the Journal of Parapsychology (Errata, 2001, p. 428).

Dr. Wiseman would probably argue that he and his colleague, Dr. Julie Milton, have answered all the criticism adequately (Milton, 1999; Schmeidler & Edge, 1999; pp. 349, 353, 354, 358, 360; Milton & Wiseman, 2001) but the fact that the controversy re-erupts on a regular basis shows that closure has by no means been reached. That is, Milton and Wiseman have not convinced their critics that their procedural and analytical decisions were correct nor have they convinced their critics that their conclusions were warranted.

The second is the following. There is a rhetorical problem with the way in which Milton & Wiseman have made very strong claims for the conclusions they reached in their meta-analysis. For example, in the original Psychological Bulletin paper, they stated in the abstract “The authors conclude that the ganzfeld technique does not at present offer a replicable method for producing ESP in the laboratory” (Milton & Wiseman, 1999. p. 387). This particular statement rests on their assumption that the effect obtained in the original Bem and Honorton paper had not been replicated in their own database (a conclusion disputed by several of their critics).

Based on their meta-analysis then, Milton and Wiseman have claimed in effect, that the ganzfeld research program was a waste of time and resources. This is a very strong claim that is, as the criticisms have shown, supported by a heavily-flawed meta-analysis (and I have barely skimmed the surface of the published criticisms that have been made in this letter). Yet in the face of these criticisms, Milton and Wiseman have continued to issue their strong claim both in Milton’s (1999) discussion paper and in their reply (Milton & Wiseman, 2001) to Storm and Ertel (2001), where they chide Storm and Ertel for inattention to the many identified flaws of the ganzfeld database. The only reason I can propose to explain why Milton and Wiseman steadfastly deflect criticism of their own work, presenting it as unproblematic and unflawed, is that they are unshakeably convinced of their conclusion and may well have been convinced of it long before they even began their work.

Of course, I may be in error, but that is the opinion I have formed. It is possible that I have assessed the magnitude and depth of the criticism incorrectly, but to be frank, I do not think that is the case. Whether I am correct or incorrect however, does not remove the fact that Milton and Wiseman have continued to ignore the controversy that has surrounded their meta-analysis. One can only hope that in future citations of their own work, they will show the same attention to flaws and criticisms they show when they cite the work of others.


BEM, D.J., PALMER, J., & BROUGHTON, R.S. (2001). Updating the Ganzfeld database: A victim of its own success? Journal of Parapsychology, 65, 207-218.

ERRATA (2001). Journal of Parapsychology, 65, 427-428.

MILTON, J. (1999). Should Ganzfeld research continue to be crucial in the search for a replicable psi effect? Park 1. Discussion paper and introduction to an electronic mail discussion. Journal of Parapsychology, 63, 309-335.

MILTON, J., & WISEMAN, R. (1999). Does psi exist? Lack of replication of an anomalous process of information transfer. Psychological Bulletin, 125, 378-391.

MILTON, J., & WISEMAN, R. (2001). Does psi exist? Reply to Storm and Ertel (2001) Psychological Bulletin, 127, 434-438.

SCHMEIDLER, G. R., & EDGE, H. (1999). Should Ganzfeld research continue to be crucial in the search for a replicable psi effect? Part II Edited Ganzfeld debate. Journal of Parapsychology, 63, 335-388.

STORM, L. (2000). Research note: Replicable evidence of psi: A revision of Milton’s (1999) meta-analysis of the Ganzfeld databases. Journal of Parapsychology, 64, 411-416.

STORM, L., & ERTEL, S. (2001). Does psi exist? Comments on Milton and Wiseman’s (1999) meta-analysis of Ganzfeld research. Parapsychology Bulletin, 127, 424-433.

STORM, L., & THALBOURNE, M.A. (2000). A paradigm shift away from the ESP-PK dichotomy: The theory of psychopraxia. Journal of Parapsychology, 64, 279-300.

ZINGRONE, N.L. (2002). Controversy and the problems of parapsychology. Journal of Parapsychology, 66, 3-30.

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Richard Wiseman’s Suggestibility


Are paranormal powers are a matter of suggestion?

by Colin Wilson


“It seems, on the contrary, to show that the human mind possesses paranormal powers of which most of us are unaware, but which can be induced to operate by the right kind of suggestion.”

– Colin Wilson

In 1971, many people began to report seeing a ghost near Ratcliff Wharf, on London’s Isle of Dogs.

An elderly clergyman would be observed gazing up the river. But as soon as people took their eye off him for a moment, he would vanish. Many people reported seeing him over the next couple of years, and their accounts were carefully chronicled by a journalist named Frank Smyth. In past centuries, the area had been well known for robbery and violence, and a favourite theory was that the old man had been murdered in a cheap boarding house for the contents of his wallet.

I happened to know this was untrue. For the ghost was the invention of Frank Smyth, who made up the story one day to fill an empty space on the back cover of a magazine called Man, Myth and Magic. He was astonished to learn that his phantom had became part of the folk lore of the East End.

Which explains how I came to take part in a deception of which I still feel slightly ashamed. I was working for BBC2, as the presenter of a series of programmes on the paranormal called “A Leap in the Dark”. And for our final programme, the producer decided to try and demonstrate how easily people can become the victims of suggestion. We went to a waterfront pub whose owner was convinced he had seen the ghost, and he and his wife both described the sighting to me on camera – the old fashioned black clothes and white ruff that 18th century clergymen often wore instead of a dog collar. I hated doing this to them, and was inclined to refuse, until I reflected that the rest of the series had already been filmed, and that this was, after all, making an interesting point about people’s proneness to suggestion.

Besides, I knew that the paranormal events described in the rest of the series were genuine – a poltergeist that wrecked a lawyer’s office, a British peer who dreamed racing winners, a woman who had an accurate dream of her own sister’s suicide.

So when I read that a well-known debunker of the paranormal, Professor Richard Wiseman, describes in the British Journal of Psychology experiments that prove the gullibility of some of his students, I accept them without question. Wiseman describes how a key was bent by a stage magician who claimed to have the same powers as Uri Geller, and how when the key was laid on the tabletop, many students accepted the suggestion that it was continuing to bend. This, says Wiseman, proves that most of us are inclined to believe what we are told.

Which, he implies, demonstrates that Uri Geller’s powers might also involve suggestion. I.e: that having bent a key using ‘stage magic’, he could then convince the onlookers that it must have been genuine by making them think the key continued to bend when placed on a tabletop.

If he will forgive me, I feel he is deceiving himself, and anyone who is gullible enough to be convinced by his logic. Psychologists have known for two centuries that people are suggestible. And that neither proves nor disproves that ‘magicians’ like Geller are doing it all by suggestion.

Here I can speak from experience. I met Geller for the first time in the mid-1970s, not long after his demonstrations of spoon-bending on the David Dimbleby programme on BBC television had made him famous. I had been asked to write a film script about him, and was determined not to be deceived. The secretary of the tycoon who was hiring me took us along to a West End restaurant for lunch. The girl – her name was Rae Knight – sat beside me in a corner, and Geller sat facing us, with his back to the main body of the dining room.

When I asked him to demonstrate his spoon-bending abilities, he immediately put me on my guard by explaining that he ‘drew his power from metal’, and would need to take the spoon across to the nearest radiator. Whereupon, Rae and I watched as he placed the spoon against the radiator, rubbed it with his finger, and within half a minute was triumphantly waving the bent spoon. Naturally, I was not impressed, for he was too far away to watch closely. But a few minutes later, he did something that left me in no doubt that he had paranormal powers: he read my mind.

He told me to draw something on the back of my menu card, and turned his back on me as I did so. I put one hand round the card, and Rae, sitting beside me, was watching in case he tried to peek. I did a drawing of a kind of goblin with a serpentine neck that I often drew for my children. It was my own invention, and it was impossible that Uri could have known about it. At that point, he told me to cover it up with my hand, and turned round to face me. He then asked me to stare into his eyes, and to try to transmit the drawing to him. After a few moments he shook his head: ‘No, it’s not working – try harder’. And then, just as I was convinced it was going to be a failure, he seized a pen and duplicated my drawing on the back of his own menu card. There could have been no possible way he could have deceived me.

Not long after that I had dinner with the stage magician who calls himself the Amazing Randi, and who has made something of a career of accusing Geller of trickery. Right in front of my eyes, Randi bent a spoon by – apparently – rubbing it gently with his finger. Then he performed number of card tricks that struck me as totally baffling. But finally, I told him about Uri’s mind-reading, and asked: ‘Could you duplicate that?’ He thought for a moment then shook his head. ‘Not without preparation’.

It is worth knowing that Richard Wiseman started his own career as a stage magician, and became one of the youngest members of the magic circle. Then, possibly inspired by Randi, he decided to make a career of using his knowledge of stage magic to investigate the paranormal, and has finally achieved the kind of reputation that makes him welcome on television programmes as the resident sceptic.

One of his sponsors is CSICOP, the Committee for the Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal [now CSI], a group of scientists and scientific popularisers who take pleasure in declaring themselves unrepentant materialists. The very suggestion of anything paranormal – like ghosts, extra-sensory perception or precognition of the future – makes them foam at the mouth. But in 1975, they got their fingers badly burned when they set out to disprove some scientific claims made for astrology by the French statistician Michel Gauquelin. He alleged that the a person’s choice of profession seemed to be influenced by the planet he was ‘born under’, and that statistics show that an unusual number of sports champions are born under Mars, actors under Jupiter, scientists under Saturn, and so on.

A physicist named Dr. Dennis Rawlins asked to examine these claims, but when he did so, his computer analysis tended to support Gauquelin. Still convinced that Gauquelin had to be wrong, Rawlins explained his own results and tried to convinced his colleagues to move on to firmer ground. They ignored him; instead there was a cover-up, and (as Rawlins wrote) ‘one’s willingness to go along with the cover-up (to protect the cause) became a test of loyalty’. They ended by throwing him out and suppressing his results. Rawlins refused to be silenced, and his subsequent revelations did CSICOP some serious damage.

So whenever I see Professor Richard Wiseman’s name in print, I expect to hear something that will sound like the CSICOP party line.

Now this is not what bothers me, for I accept that scepticism plays an important part in scientific investigation. I only become worried when sceptics show signs of refusing to look facts in the face.

And where suggestion is concerned, some pretty amazing facts have been around for nearly two centuries.

First, Dr. Anton Mesmer discovered that illnesses can be cured by ‘mesmerism’, which involved stroking with magnets to move ‘vital fluids’ around the body. No psychologist now doubts that the success of this treatment was due in part to suggestion. But then a French marquis named Puysegur placed the whole thing on firmer ground when he stumbled on the techniques of hypnosis. He made passes in front of the eyes of a servant, who fell into a trance and carried out orders with his eyes closed. Later, a girl called Madeleine would obey mental orders given to her by members of the audience. It seemed that hypnosis had made her telepathic. In other words, it seemed to release ‘hidden powers’. Thereafter, the history of hypnosis in the 19th century is full of well authenticated examples of telepathy taking place under hypnosis, including a series of impressive experiments conducted by ‘Darwin’s rival’ Alfred Russell Wallace, one of the founders of the Society for Psychical Research.

All of which, I would suggest to Professor Wiseman, does the exact opposite of proving that paranormal powers are a matter of suggestion. It seems, on the contrary, to show that the human mind possesses paranormal powers of which most of us are unaware, but which can be induced to operate by the right kind of suggestion.

While I was studying Uri Geller in the 1970s – I went on to write a book about him – I was also investigating cases of so-called poltergeist activity, in which objects fly around the room and china gets smashed. This often seemed to happen in the presence of teenagers, and I concluded that they develop certain unconscious powers that can produce these effects by a kind of spontaneoua ‘psychokinesis’ – or mind over matter. And the more I studied Uri, the more I became convinced that his own powers are of a similar nature.


Not if you come to these things with an open mind, and are prepared to put your prejudices behind you.

If I thought Professor Wiseman had that kind of mind I would take him rather more seriously.

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Richard Wiseman’s “Distinguished Contributions to Science and Skepticism”


Richard Wiseman’s
“Distinguished Contributions to Science and Skepticism”


Skeptics Have Us Covered

by Guy Lyon Playfair


British author Guy Lyon Playfair (This House is Haunted,
Twin Telepathy, and 10 other books) is a longtime skeptic watcher.

Fellows of the so-called Committee for Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP; now CSI) are chosen, according to senior psi-cop Kendrick Frazier, “for distinguished contributions to science and skepticism”. The latest to receive such an honour is Dr. Richard Wiseman, whose job description is “reader in public understanding of psychology” at the University of Hertfordshire. His services to skepticism are indeed considerable.

One day in 1998, for example, he popped into his local public library and was “horrified to find endless volumes promoting the existence of paranormal phenomena, and almost nothing promoting a more skeptical perspective”. So he appealed to the readers of The Skeptic to sponsor subscriptions for their local libraries so that “a huge number of people would have access to less credulous articles on the paranormal”.

He reports with pride that “we received sponsorship for almost 200 libraries… From Aberdeen to Brighton, Cardiff to Norwich, Belfast to London, we had the country covered.” He seems to have overlooked the fact that, as Russell Targ puts it, “people are interested in psychic experiences not because they are reading about them but because they are having them”.

Wiseman’s crusade to save us all from cultural ruin even reached London’s Science Museum. Venturing into the gloom of its new extension one day in 2001, I came across a large panel with no less than four photos of him, the text explaining that he was the holder of the “Guinness World Record for the most systematic study of ghosts ever, based on his real-life study of Edinburgh’s vaults”.

Another panel confused things somewhat by telling us that “psychologist Richard Wiseman doesn’t believe in ghosts”. A glass case nearby contained various relics of his “systematic” Edinburgh study, (actually just another of his self-promoting publicity stunts) including a pile of tattered Polaroid prints and a few other bits and pieces.

I wish I understood Japanese so that I could follow what the couple next to me were saying. Perhaps it was the same as I was thinking – “What is all this rubbish doing in what is supposed to be a science museum?”

So much for Wiseman’s services to skepticism. How about his services to science? He has indeed made at least one major contribution, and it seems to be the only thing he has kept very quiet about in his regular appearances on radio and television and at conferences all over the place. So let me give it some free publicity.

In 1997 the Journal of Parapsychology (Vol. 61, p. 197-207) published the results of a test jointly carried out by Wiseman and Marilyn Schlitz, whose positive attitude to psi research is the exact opposite of his. She came up with a chance-probability score of 0.04 whereas his was no less than sixteen times higher, at 0.64. They repeated their joint experiment, as reported in the 1999 Proceedings of the Parapsychological Association and again made the point that if you want positive results you get them, if you don’t want them you don’t.

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Richard Wiseman’s Remote Viewing “Breakthrough”


Richard Wiseman’s Remote Viewing “Breakthrough”


Breakthrough to Nowhere

by Guy Lyon Playfair


British author Guy Lyon Playfair (This House is Haunted,
Twin Telepathy, and 10 other books) is a longtime skeptic watcher.

Hot on the heels of Messrs. Moulton and Kosslyn (see MediaWatch: Neuroimaging Used in Attempts to Resolve the Psi Debate), along comes Richard Wiseman, describing in New Scientist (10 June 2009) his latest publicity stunt under the modest title “Tweeting my way to a scientific breakthrough”. Results, according to an editorial, ‘fail to show any support for the paranormal’. They do indeed, as one does not have to be psychic to have predicted, for this was clearly another of those experiments that are designed to come up with negative results and reassure the general public that psi is a load of rubbish. They also fail to show any sign of what is usually understood to be a breakthrough.

It purported to be a mass experiment in remote viewing (RV), or clairvoyance (seeing at a distance), with the participation of some 1,000-plus ‘twitterers’. For the first informal test, Wiseman went to a location and asked people to tweet their impressions of what he was looking at. He then sent out details of where to find a photo of where he was, so that twitterers received feedback within twenty minutes or so. He reports, somewhat vaguely, that what he calls, without defining them, ‘paranormal believers’ claimed ‘high levels of correspondence between their thoughts and the actual locations’, but gives no examples and no statistics.

Oh well, this was only an informal test. The subsequent formal one ran for four days, and was designed to test ‘whether the group as a whole was psychic’ and whether believers did better than disbelievers. As before, Wiseman went somewhere and asked participants to send in their thoughts and impressions. They were then shown five photos, one of which was of the target location, and asked to choose which one it was. Their choices were pooled and the photo receiving the most votes was designated as their collective choice. As you will have guessed, the group got it wrong four times out of four, enabling Wiseman to conclude that ‘the study didn’t support the existence of remote viewing’, adding patronisingly that ‘it suggests that those who believe in the paranormal are simply good at finding illusory correspondences between their thoughts and a target – which is maybe why they believe in the first place.’

By now, even first-year parapsychology students will have spotted several basic experimenter errors and significant omissions in Wiseman’s brief report. Among those spotted by New Scientist readers, who are probably fairly familiar with correct scientific procedures:

1. We are not told exactly how many people took part and what percentage of the individual impressions was correct. If, as Wiseman seems to imply, nobody made a single statement that could apply to the target location, this would be a result of some significance.

2. We are not told how many individuals, if any, guessed all four targets correctly.

3. The implication that if the group as a whole failed to demonstrate collective clairvoyance, therefore clairvoyance does not exist, is as absurd as asking randomly chosen people to play a scale on a tuba regardless of whether they had any previous experience of tuba playing, or indeed any musical ability at all, and concluding that the evidence for tuba-playing ability is so weak as to be insignificant.

One reader whose views deserve respect, Professor Brian Josephson, made a similar point – any accurate remote viewing in the group would have been lost in ‘a combination of noise from those not having those skills, and systematic error’. It would have been better, he added politely, ‘if the experimenter had discussed methodological issues with experts in the field before starting the experiment’.

Had he done so, he would have been told that (a) judging of RV tests should be done by impartial outsiders, not by the subjects themselves and certainly not by sceptical investigators, and (b) that to do good RV subjects need training. Expecting an unselected sample of the general public to demonstrate it on demand is totally unrealistic. As one sceptical reader put it, ‘I find the notion of remote viewing ridiculous, but find conclusions overreaching their results equally so’.

Wiseman prefaces his report with a brief reference to the U.S.Army’s Stargate project, which trained military remote viewers and used them for nearly twenty years. ‘Some have claimed that results supported [RV’s] existence’, he conceded. They have indeed – the U.S.Army for example, which awarded one of its longest serving viewers, Joe McMoneagle, the Legion of Merit. This is given for ‘exceptionally meritorious conduct in the performance of outstanding services and achievements’, and Joe’s citation credited him with ‘producing crucial and vital intelligence unavailable from any other source’. Quite an impressive claim, you might think.

Wiseman, as it happens, has met McMoneagle and witnessed an experiment he carried out some years ago at the Rhine Research Center in Durham, NC., so he knows perfectly well how RV is done properly having seen for himself. After Joe had made a drawing of a target location, the thirty attendees were shown the usual five photos of possible sites and 29 of them picked the right one. Wiseman then complained that the controls were not tight enough, so McMoneagle invited him to take over the protocol and run it any way he liked the following day, which he duly did. Joe still got 29 first-place matches out of thirty. Not surprisingly, as Joe notes in his book The Stargate Chronicles (p.251), ‘Richard has refused to discuss it since.’

In the 11 July 2009 New Scientist (Letters, p.26), reader David Smith would also like to know how many people guessed correctly where Wiseman was, and whether the number was what chance would predict? ‘It would be interesting and necessary before dismissing the whole concept of remote viewing,’ he adds, ‘to select out such people and test them more thoroughly than Wiseman did. If this was done, we need to see the results.’ Smith also makes the important point that the US Star Gate programme ‘involved intense training of carefully selected participants’. Wiseman’s participants were not trained at all.

Wiseman replied that ‘it was impossible to analyse the statistics for each individual because of the way the experiment was run. Valid statistics could only be derived for the group as a whole.’ He did concede, however, that ‘re-testing of individuals that scored highly would be interesting.’

This seems to imply that some individuals did score highly, and re-testing of them might indeed produce some valid statistics, perhaps indicating positive evidence for remote viewing ability. It remains to be seen whether Wiseman intends to pursue this further, or if the possibility of obtaining positive evidence is a risk he would prefer not to take.

He may be equally unwilling in the future to discuss this demonstration of tendentious and utterly pointless twittering.

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Richard Wiseman’s Critique of the Feilding Report Refuted


Richard Wiseman’s Critique of the Feilding Report Refuted


“Physical Mediumship – A Classic Case”

by Stephen Braude


The case of Eusapia Palladino is a classic example of psychokinesis
by a medium. Eusapia’s powers were investigated and found genuine
by Sir Oliver Lodge in 1895.

Further convincing evidence followed from a series of experiments
by distinguished Italian scientists including the criminologist,
Professor Lombroso at Turin, Dr. Enrico Morselli, Professor of
Neurology and Psychiatry (mental therapeutics), in the University
of Genoa, and Drs. Herlitzka, C. Foa, and Aggazzotti, with Dr.
Pio Foa, Professor of Pathological Anatomy also present, at Turin.

These investigations were all carried out under laboratory conditions
and yielded positive conclusions. In 1908, three members of the
S.P.R., the Hon. Everard Feilding, Mr. W. W. Baggally and Mr.
Hereward Carrington were commissioned by the Society to carry out
another serious investigation with this medium. Again, the conclusions
were positive.

In this edited extract from his book, Stephen Braude refutes the criticisms
levelled at the Feilding report by the media skeptic Dr. Richard Wiseman.


Stephen Braude
Stephen Braude
I realize that the reader’s response to the 1908 Naples report cannot be as profound as the experiences of the investigators themselves. No report can produce conviction as deep as that engendered by a compelling first-hand confrontation with observable PK. Of course, even the best observers can overlook things in the excitement of the moment. That is why it often helps to distance oneself from the events in question and consider the usual possibilities of malobservation, chicanery, etc. But because humans are fallible, every eyewitness account can be challenged retrospectively. The only interesting question is whether there is good reason actually – not just theoretically-to challenge the account. At some point, in the case of every piece of testimony, we must decide whether the observer is reliable, and we cannot withhold our confidence simply because mistakes are possible. In fact, every observation claim is conditionally (rather than categorically) acceptable, and our decision whether or not to accept a particular claim depends on various factors.

For present purposes, the most important of those factors are: (a) the capabilities of the observer, (b) the nature of the object allegedly observed, and (c) the means of observation and the conditions under which the observation occurred.

In judging the reliability of reports of paranormal phenomena, we weigh these factors differently in different cases. But in general, it matters (a) whether the observers are trained, sober, honest, alert, subject to flights of imagination, and fortunate enough to have good eyesight, (b) whether the objects are too small to see easily, whether they are easily mistaken for other things, or whether they are of a kind whose existence cannot be assumed as a matter of course (e.g., unicorns, UFOs), and (c) whether the objects were observed close at hand, with or without the aid of instruments, whether they were stationary or moving rapidly, etc., whether the observation occurred under decent light, through a dirty window, in the midst of various distractions, etc.

Observers in the Eusapia Case

For the reasons noted above, I consider the best testimony in Eusapia’s case to be reliable. The observers were honest, experienced, well prepared, and alert for (actually, expecting) trickery. In fact, they were as competent as one could hope for. Moreover, the phenomena reported were not difficult to observe, the observations were made under conditions that ranged from adequate to good, and the phenomena observed were not antecedently incredible or without precedent. But it is still all too easy for skeptics to cast doubt retrospectively on these reports, usually by ignoring the reasons for having confidence in the testimony and by raising the mere theoretical possibility of error under the conditions that actually prevailed.

Wiseman’s Approach

A recent example of this approach is a paper by Wiseman (1992), which calls attention to various details omitted from the Feilding report of the 1908 Naples sittings, and then suggests (in light of those omissions) that an accomplice might have helped Eusapia produce most of the phenomena reported by the “Fraud Squad.” Wiseman’s paper sparked an extended and often acrimonious exchange (see Barrington, 1992, 1993; Martínez-Taboas and Francia, 1993, 1994; Wiseman, 1993a-d). His reexamination of the Feilding report has the avowed aim of helping parapsychologists learn more about how to conduct and report case investigations. And to his credit, Wiseman does unearth some interesting and previously unnoticed or unheralded details and omissions from the report. But on the whole, Wiseman’s critique strikes me as just another glib exercise in skeptical dialectic, presented in the usual insincere guise of concern for the naive researchers in parapsychology. A few comments
should illustrate why.

First of all, Wiseman’s general concern seems transparently disingenuous. He writes, “present-day investigators stand to learn several important methodological lessons from the shortcomings of the [Feilding] Report” (1993d, p. 210). But in fact, there seems to be only one methodological lesson that Wiseman draws from his study (although he offers different formulations of it), and that lesson is so obvious as to be vacuous. In summing up his original paper, he claims that his analysis “has demonstrated the clear need for investigators to be able to design, and report, research in such a way that the opportunity for retrospective accusations of deception is minimised” (1992, p. 150). A few paragraphs later, he says, “the lesson to be learnt is that the reporting of such studies needs to be complete and extremely accurate” (1992, p. 151). And in conclusion he claims that the “central lesson” of his analysis is that “investigations should be … carried out, and reported, in such a way as to minimise retrospective counter-explanations.” (1992, p. 151.)

Considering how trite this “lesson” is, one is tempted to think that Wiseman must surely have intended to make a more substantive claim. But it is unclear what that might be. The only alternative I can extract from his critique, which at least avoids the banality of the claims quoted above, is preposterous. Wiseman frequently makes a different sort of comment, an apparent variant of his claim above that reports should be “complete and extremely accurate.” The following are representative samples. “In order to be quite sure that an effect is truly paranormal, it is essential that any investigation guards against all possible ‘normal’ explanations” (1992, p. 150). “Before declaring any phenomenon ‘inexplicable’, it is vital to make sure that testimony relating to that phenomenon is both complete and reliable.” (1993a, p. 26.)

First, I should note that there are, obviously, practical and aesthetic constraints on how complete any report should be. In fact, there is good reason, when reporting on a case investigation, to omit details that (if included) would add considerably to the tedium of reading a report, especially if (a) the report is as long as the Feilding report, (b) the investigators are (like the Naples trio) good at their job and know what to look for, and (c) one assumes (naturally, and as Crookes did) that readers will give the investigators credit for enough common sense to check on obvious matters not mentioned in the report.

But quite apart from that issue, one would think it is too obvious to mention that no record of a séance (or, arguably, any event) can be complete, whether the record be verbal, auditory, or visual. One would like to think that Wiseman recognizes this and accordingly would not want to demand that experimenters attain an impossible degree of completeness in their reports. And in fact, when challenged, Wiseman seems to retreat from that absurdly strong position. When Martínez-Taboas and Francia (1993) question Wiseman’s advice, quoted above, that investigators guard “against all possible ‘normal’ explanations,” Wiseman concedes that “I do not believe … that any investigation will be able to counter all possible normal explanations.” (1993c, p. 131.) Similarly, he notes that “I do not believe that any investigation has been, or will be, completely fraud-proof.” But in order to explain what position he does hold, Wiseman simply reasserts the trite advice noted above. He writes, “I … believe that investigators have a duty to design their studies to minimize the possibility of subject deception to the best of their knowledge at the time. (1993c, pp. 130-131.) And again, “I … believe that parapsychologists should at least try to design research projects that minimize the plausibility of [normal] explanations” (p. 131). It is no wonder Wiseman’s critics did not find his advice especially insightful.

Wiseman again seems disingenuous when he claims that he does not require investigations of psychics to be fraud-proof. For example, he worries that because “Feilding did not describe the appearance of Baggally’s ceiling … it is dangerous to assume … that it could not have housed a trap door.” (1993a, p. 21.) Similarly, he writes, “the controls described by the investigators would not have prevented the use of an accomplice and so such an accomplice could have been there. This potential for an accomplice is damning to the Feilding Report.” (1993d, p. 212.) One would think, then, that no amount of prose could dispel the sorts of concerns Wiseman expresses. The mere potential for fraud of one kind or another can never be ruled out by any written account. So if Wiseman regards that as damning to a case report, then he does insist on the absurdly strict criterion of completeness mentioned earlier, despite his protestations to the contrary and subsequent retreat to banalities.

And that retreat to a merely useless position is facilitated by a convenient ambiguity in Wiseman’s prose. The reader cannot be sure whether Wiseman is concerned about possibilities or probabilities. I agree only that it would be foolish (not dangerous) to assume that the ceiling could not house a trap door or that Eusapia could not have employed an accomplice. But those would be foolish assumptions no matter what Feilding or anybody else had written. The issue is not whether the existence of a trap door (or the use of an accomplice) is empirically possible. Rather, it is whether, given what the report states and what we know about the expertise, attitudes, honesty, preparedness, and thoroughness of the investigators, there is any reason to believe that a trap door existed (or that an accomplice aided Eusapia). Hasty and uncritical assumptions about that question might, indeed, lead to trouble. Nevertheless, I suggest that the answer to the question, for reasons already surveyed, is (quite obviously) “no.”

Other Evidence

In the case of the 1908 Naples sittings, if one had nothing to go on but the words in the reports themselves, one might be justified in adopting a more skeptical position. But quite apart from other decent evidence provided by other experienced investigators, one knows enough about the competence and critical attitudes of the Naples trio to be confident that they took obvious precautions not mentioned in the report. Wiseman offers no reason to think that the trap door (or accomplice) hypothesis is anything other than a mere theoretical possibility, and he has given no reason to distrust the informed judgment of the investigators (three experienced debunkers of fraudulent mediums). He has merely drawn attention to the sorts of inevitable lacunae that exist in even the best reports.

Burden of Explanation

Wiseman also seems to adopt the unacceptable strategy of placing the burden of explanation entirely on the shoulders of those who argue for the paranormality of the phenomena. For example, in his exchanges with Barrington (Wiseman, 1993a, 1993d; Barrington, 1992, 1993), Wiseman admits that he offers no explanation for the cold breezes emanating from Eusapia’s forehead. But apparently he thinks he can thereby cast doubt on the phenomenon by noting simply that “seemingly inexplicable phenomena do not falsify the accomplice hypothesis (1993d, p. 211). But it seems to me that the burden of proof in connection with the Feilding report falls on the skeptic, who must show that fraud is likely, not merely (and trivially) empirically possible. Had the investigators been biased in favor of the phenomena, or less experienced, prepared, competent, honest, and familiar with conjuring, and had the phenomena occurred under less favorable conditions of observation, the burden of proof would have shifted, appropriately, away from the skeptic. Most of Wiseman’s critique is a variant of a disreputable type of skeptical attack on formal experiments in parapsychology. The general strategy is to argue that the description and procedures of the experiment do not rule out the possibility of fraud. Hence (so the argument goes), the reported results are suspect.

The Proper Response

Obviously, the proper response to that argument is to note that no experiment in any branch of science precludes all possibility of fraud. So that cannot be a reason to reject an experimental report. The issue is not whether fraud was possible, but whether there are good reasons for thinking it was actual. The same points apply, mutatis mutandis, to Wiseman’s critique. Of course (as we have seen), when pushed, Wiseman backtracks and maintains that he does not require reports to eliminate all possibility of fraud. But for reasons already noted, that claim seems to be both false and insincere. Oddly, in an attempt to justify his concern about the reliability of the Feilding report, Wiseman mentions Carrington’s failure to recall that the control of Eusapia during some table levitations was actually better than he had noted at the time and recalled the next day. Feilding wrote, two weeks later, that the experimenters had tied Eusapia’s feet to the legs of her chair and then forgotten it. Feilding admits, appropriately, that the report “as a complete record of events, is very imperfect” (p. 84; p. 374). But Feilding does not concede that the report as a whole is therefore unreliable and that one should accordingly reject (or at least be more suspicious of) the conclusions of the investigators. That is what Wiseman tries to suggest. But Feilding notes only that the Naples report is, both inevitably and predictably, incomplete. He does not admit or reveal that the investigators failed to take the precautions necessary to rule out fraud.

A Remarkable Body of Evidence

So I think we must concede that the Feilding report is a remarkable body of evidence for the reality of large-scale PK and that it simply cannot be dismissed. The skeptical hypotheses surveyed in the previous chapter are clearly inadequate as alternative explanations. It would be preposterous to propose either that Eusapia cheated throughout or that (because of biased misperception, outright malobservation, or collective hypnosis) the investigators did not observe what they claimed. And for the reasons mentioned earlier, Wiseman’s conjectures about the mere possibility of an accomplice are frivolous and his general skeptical position is either trivial or foolish. I know that acknowledging the weaknesses of skeptical counter-explanations may be a viscerally unsatisfying road to a belief in PK. But it seems to me that to an intellectually honest and open-minded person, no other option remains.


The Limits of Influence: Psychokinesis and the Philosophy of Science
Stephen E. Braude, University Press of America (Lanham, MD), 1997.

References quoted in the text are from the book.


Stephen Braude

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Richard Wiseman

Richard Wiseman

Richard Wiseman, Ph.D., is a fellow of CSICOP, a consultant editor of the Skeptical Inquirer, and an associate of Rationalist International. Having started his career as a conjuror, he took a degree in psychology (University College, London) and a PhD in parapsychology from Edinburgh University, and is now based in the Psychology Department at the University of Hertfordshire.

Wiseman’s speciality is the psychology of lying and deception, and he is the author of Deception and Self-Deception: Investigating Psychics (1997). He is Britain’s most ambitious and ubiquitous media skeptic and has appeared in hundreds of TV and radio programmes. In 1995 he was awarded a Perrott-Warrick research fellowship for psychical research, and according to his web site has received more than £400,000 sterling in grants. He has been at the centre of many controversies with researchers in parapsychology, and has often been accused of deliberately misrepresenting data.

In 1995, he replicated Rupert Sheldrake’s results with a dog that knows when its owner was coming home, and then claimed to have debunked the ‘psychic pet’ phenomenon (“Richard Wiseman’s claim to have debunked “the psychic pet phenomenon’.” – Rupert Sheldrake).

He has been described by the President of the Parapsychology Association as motivated by “obvious self-interest”, and by a desire “to support an a priori commitment to the notion that all positive psi results are spurious and all methods which seem to show the presence of psi are flawed” (see Richard Wiseman and Ganzfeld Telepathy Research).

In December 2000 he carried out what he described as the “world’s biggest ESP experiment” which, like many of his activities, was widely publicised in the media. A skeptical observer of the experiment claimed that he had designed the experiment to fail and interfered with the procedure in such a way as to gain the non-significant result he expected (see Richard Wiseman’s “Experimenter Effect” Examined).

In September 2004 he took part in a classic CSICOP debunking excercise, claiming that a young Russian girl who had seemingly psychic powers of diagnosis had failed a test he and his fellow skeptics designed. In fact the girl scored at a level well above chance. Prof Brian Josephson, FRS, a Nobel Laureate in physics, investigated Wiseman’s claims about this test and found them to be seriously misleading (“Scientists’ Unethical Use of Media for Propaganda Purposes” – Cavendish Lab).

A lively debate between biologist Rupert Sheldrake and Richard Wiseman reveals a wide rift between skeptics and psi proponents (Sheldrake and Wiseman on Skeptiko, March 8, 2010).

Mary Rose Barrington takes Wiseman and his colleagues to task (The Natasha Demkina Case – Respected Scientists?).

In our Media Watch feature, Guy Lyon Playfair doubts Wiseman’s claim of a “breakthrough” in his attempt to debunk Remote Viewing (Breakthrough to Nowhere).

By the autumn of 2004, after a series of other very questionable claims, widely publicized in the media, many of his peers in the parapsychology research community concluded that his behaviour was not consistent with commonly-accepted standards of scientific integrity, and he was voted off the main research forum in parapsychology by a large majority. In addition, for similar reasons, some members of the Society for Psychical Resaerch called for him to be expelled for the Society. He resigned. Despite his strong skeptical beliefs, in 2004 he applied for the newly-established chair of Parapsychology in Lund, Sweden, which was endowed to promote research in this field.

In an interview with Skeptiko (April 2011) Rupert Sheldrake accused Richard Wiseman of “persistent deception” in Wiseman’s book Paranormality: Why We See What Isn’t There (2011).

JSPR has published a penetrating critique by Chris Carter of Richard Wiseman’s attack on parapsychology in Wiseman’s paper published in Skeptical Inquirer, A Response to Wiseman’s (2010) Critique of Parapsychology (PDF).

Wiseman’s ability to manipulate the media misleadingly is not confined to psychic phenomena. Much has been written about a scientific “study” of his that claimed to show that people could not tell the difference between cheap and expensive wines. But the test was seriously flawed, in that subjects were not asked to compare two samples of wine blind, but were given just a single glass and asked to say whether it was cheap or expensive. The wine blogger Jamie Goode comments that this “study” was “in essence a clever publicity stunt to boost the profile of the [Edinburgh science] festival by generating column-inches.” Wiseman was on the Advisory Board of the festival at the time (The Wiseman ‘Study’: Cheap Versus Expensive Wine – Jamie Goodwin).

More Information:

Richard Wiseman’s Failed Attempt to Debunk the “Psychic Pet” Phenomenon

Rupert Sheldrake, June 2015

Richard Wiseman caught cheating – or tricking skeptics?

Adrian Parker, YouTube, August 12, 2014

“Richard Wiseman performing a simple card trick on the Scandinavian talk show Skavlan and saying it was done by ‘reading body language’, and claiming to demonstrate how spiritualistic mediums give readings to sitters. Such subtle cues would never give a reliable life television success but many naive skeptics buy this.” (YouTube)

Richard Wiseman’s Website

Photo credit: Richard Wiseman